Rocking Europe's boat, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras held a very friendly meeting with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin Wednesday. Mr. Tsipras' visit yielded the political symbolism both sides were looking for, though it's unclear how much substance there will be for the struggling Greek and Russian economies.
"A good deal of what we're seeing here is political theater" for the benefit of the European Union, says Sergei Zabelin, an expert at the Institute of Europe in Moscow. "But there are important economic deals on the table."
For instance, Russian officials say Mr. Putin will agree to exempt Greece from Russia's ban on food imports from the European Union, which could see Greek agricultural exports to Russia return to about $200 million a year. Less tangibly, Russia offered to make Greece a major energy hub for southern Europe, when the new "Turk Stream" gas pipeline under the Black Sea comes online. Greece can use any economic help it can get, with the country facing a deadline tomorrow to repay 450 million euros to its creditors. [Editor's note: The original version misstated who had said Russia's ban on Greek food imports would be lifted.]
What does Putin get in return? A bit more diplomatic support.
Russia has been conducing a diplomatic offensive designed to prove it will be able to weather economic sanctions imposed after it annexed part of Ukraine. Moscow has enjoyed considerable success, defining what looks like a whole new economic relationship with China, reaffirming traditional strong ties with India, and cutting fresh deals with Egypt and Turkey.
The Russians hope that a sympathetic Greece will somehow throw a wrench into the EU sanctions regime against Moscow when they come up for renewal in July.
No clear commitment of diplomatic support was offered by Tsipras, but he said at a press conference in Moscow that he considers anti-Russia sanctions to be the equivalent of "economic war" and a "fruitless" tactic. "Greece is a sovereign country with the unconditional right to conduct a multifaceted foreign policy," he added.
The Kremlin has courted dissenting EU members such as Hungary and Austria. But Greece, with its dire financial straits and new left-wing government, might prove the most serious challenge to EU unity over relations with Moscow, some analysts say. "The new Greek leadership ... [wants] to demonstrate to Europe that they have their own independent position," says Mr. Zabelin.
While the promise of Russian energy flowing through Greece wasn't fleshed out in detail, Putin played up the benefits for Greece if it decides to join the project. "The new route will provide for the Europeans' needs in fuel, and would allow Greece to become one of the main power distribution centers on the continent. It could help attract significant investments into the Greek economy," he said at the Kremlin on Wednesday.
But Tsipras looked visibly dubious about the "Turk Stream" idea, and experts say that even if all the details are sorted out, the benefits Greece would be far down the road.
"Potentially this pipeline project makes Greece a really important player [in European energy distribution]. But nobody really knows at this point whether it can work, or how it will work," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal.
Mr. Lukyanov says nothing can really be decided about long-range ties between Russia and Greece until Athens sorts out its tangled relationship with the EU.
"Is Greece staying in the Eurozone, or not? Until there is clarity about Greece's future in Europe, it makes no sense to discuss any special relationship between Greece and Russia," he says. "It's mostly political showmanship at this point."